**½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras C
starring Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan
screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the memoir by Lynn Barber
directed by Lone Scherfig
by Walter Chaw Director Lone Scherfig is perhaps notoriously the first woman to direct a Dogme95 picture (Italian for Beginners) and preserves her effortlessness with actors and light romantic imbroglios with An Education. Yet it shows little maturation, particularly after her scabrous, delicately balanced, Hal Ashby-esque Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, instead regressing into the ghetto of only-adequate BBC coming-of-age story. If An Education is remembered at all, it will be for raising the profile of the immensely appealing Carey Mulligan. She's Jenny, a sharp, sensitive sixteen-year-old schoolgirl with a promising future in letters and eyes on Oxford until she's distracted by the allure of a bohemian lifestyle with pretentious friends, who pretend at the civilization she would rightfully earn in time. Leader of said bohemians is creepy/suave David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose courtship of Jenny is a laudable contrast to Twilight in showing a worldly older man using all the benefits of his experience to impress, and eventually deflower, an easily-exploited high-schooler with stars in her eyes.
David, it appears, is some kind of con man banking on old English ladies' racism to run multiple real estate (topical!) and art scams, making his acts and his eventual cowardice further evidence, if further evidence were needed, that the guy's a cad. As though it weren't enough that he arranges a romantic weekend away on the ruse that he's an intimate of C.S. Lewis just to ogle Jenny's tits in the film's skeeziest--and best--moment. It's in this ugly, unpleasant exchange that Scherfig finds the edge in An Education--that the film elevates, however briefly, from basic period melodrama into a picture that wants to indict its audience's participation in the seduction of Jenny. Slick, handsome, happy to namedrop, and awash in the mod-hipster detailing of its 1960s England and Paris, An Education is the very celluloid representation of David's reptilian charmer. We shouldn't be quite this delighted that David so easily wins over Jenny's stentorian father (a typically wonderful Alfred Molina), or quite this invested in his getting away with it up until it's finally revealed that he's a wimp in addition to a prick.
In fact, the picture is so good at detailing the excitement of the era and the exhilaration of first love, from its pitch-perfect soundtrack choices (ironic, given Scherfig's dogme roots) to its meticulous supporting performances (Emma Thompson is exceptional as the bitter headmistress of Jenny's school), that it's really no wonder middlebrow Sundance audiences lavished praise upon it. It's ultimately too polite and well-practiced, only slightly more interested in the problems presented by statutory rape than Twilight when, at its end, the whole ordeal is played off as a speedbump in Jenny's life to be overcome with the same pluck as a near-miss marriage in Jane Austen. Shake it off, dear, Oxford calls. The hardest parts of An Education to shake are those where Scherfig delivers on the subject matter's cool reptile belly, those chilling little grace notes where Jenny joins David in deceiving her parents, or when David loses his cool and places a few well-aimed jabs in Jenny's too-vulnerable flank. Key is Mulligan, balanced here midway between girl and sophisticate like Audrey Hepburn getting a haircut in Rome. The sensation of seeing her play with a young woman's budding awareness of her exact power and helplessness in the world carries with it the same weight as Audrey's introduction to us. The difference being, of course, that Mulligan is a wonderful, complex actress.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Full of small pleasures and decidedly lacking in any larger impact or resonance, An Education is safe fare given a commensurately unmemorable 2.35:1, 1080p transfer to Blu-ray by Sony. Detail is good, colours are bright, and there are no obvious examples of artifacting or stutter in the frame-rate, though I was distracted a bit by a certain unevenness from exterior to interior, and from medium shot to close-up. The image can vacillate between count-the-cobblestones detailed and mushy, dreamy, Francis Ford Coppola-in-The Outsiders monumentalism in a single cut. Possibly by design, but given Scherfig's other work, I'm leaning the other way. An overall flatness does, however, suggest that Scherfig's background is in taut tension against the relative good cheer of the film's subject matter. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track delivers the goods, for what they're worth, with adequate volume and fidelity. This is a dialogue-heavy picture, predictably forward-heavy with only a handful of crowd and weather sequences breaking through to the rear channels. Paul Englishby's score is light and tinkly and spread around but, again, like the video, the audio isn't anything to get excited about.
Mulligan, Scherfig, and Sarsgaard combine for a feature-length yakker that tends towards the mundane but is never hard to listen to. Blame Mulligan, who's delightful, and Sarsgaard, who seems to be channelling his evil letch when he enlists Scherfig in admiring Mulligan's "cuteness" a couple of times. Far from an analytic piece, this is a mutual-appreciation society in which Scherfig reveals that Mulligan attended a school exactly like the one on screen. (In other words, nothing's really changed in the intervening decades.) Not much meat here, but the potatoes are fine. "The Making of" (9 mins.) invites a few more parties to the table, including screenwriter Nick Hornby and memoirist Lynn Barber, mainly to rehash key points of the yakker; eleven "Deleted Scenes" (16 mins.) are composed entirely of more Mulligan (Mulligan answering a phone, Mulligan talking to friends, etc.), meaning I watched it twice; and "Walking the Red Carpet" (9 mins.) is one of those embarrassing extras you generally find on movies from the Forties because there's no one from the production still alive to contribute an interview or a commentary. The disc comes packed, too, with HD trailers for The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Class, Married Life, The Jane Austen Book Club (trenchant!), Chloe, Coco Before Chanel, It Might Get Loud, Whatever Works, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, and Michael Jackson's This Is It. Originally published: April 22, 2010.